Pip spends a great deal of time with Estella in the house of her London hostess, Mrs. Brandley. However, he is not treated as a serious suitor. Rather, he is allowed to accompany Estella everywhere she goes, watching her treat her other suitors cruelly but being more or less ignored himself. He cannot understand why Miss Havisham does not announce the details of their engagement, in which he continues to believe. Pip and Estella go to visit the old woman, and Pip observes for the first time a combative relationship between her and Estella: Miss Havisham goads Estella on to break men’s hearts, but Estella treats Miss Havisham as coldly as she treats her suitors. Shortly thereafter, Pip learns to his horror that Drummle is courting Estella. He confronts Estella about the news, but she refuses to take his concern seriously, reminding Pip that he is the only suitor she doesn’t try to deceive and entrap. But this only makes Pip feel less important to her. That night, the young man imagines his fate as a heavy stone slab hanging over his head, about to fall.
“I begin to think,” said Estella, in a musing way, after another moment of calm wonder, “that I almost understand how this comes about.”See Important Quotations Explained
Time passes, and Pip is now twenty-three. One night, during a midnight thunderstorm, he hears heavy footsteps trudging up his stairs. An old sailor enters Pip’s apartment, and Pip treats him nervously and haughtily before recognizing him. It is Pip’s convict, the same man who terrorized him in the cemetery and on the marsh when he was a little boy. Horrified, Pip learns the truth of his situation: the convict went to Australia, where he worked in sheep ranching and earned a huge fortune. Moved by Pip’s kindness to him on the marsh, he arranged to use his wealth to make Pip a gentleman. The convict, not Miss Havisham, is Pip’s secret benefactor. Pip is not meant to marry Estella at all.
With a crestfallen heart, Pip hears that the convict is even now on the run from the law, and that if he is caught, he could be put to death. Pip realizes that though the convict’s story has plunged him into despair, it is his duty to help his benefactor. He feeds him and gives him Herbert’s bed for the night, since Herbert is away. Terrified of his new situation, Pip looks in on the convict, who is sleeping with a pistol on his pillow, and then locks the doors and falls asleep. He awakes at five o’clock in the morning to a dark sky tormented by wind and rain.
As we saw in the previous section, Pip has now matured into an adult, marking a new phase in the novel; additionally, the reappearance of the convict and the solution of the mystery of Pip’s benefactor mark an important milestone in the book’s narrative development. Appropriately, the second important stage of the novel concludes at the end of this section; we are told here, “This is the end of the second stage of Pip’s expectations.”
Dickens opens this section by illustrating the extent to which Pip must now fool himself to believe that he is still meant to marry Estella. His relationship with Estella has gone from bad to worse: where he was once her innocent playmate, he is now expected to act as her innocuous companion, accompanying her to meet suitor after suitor at innumerable parties, essentially functioning as her chaperone. Dickens contrasts Pip’s romantic quandary with the romantic optimism of his friends, who all seem to find romantic happiness. Wemmick has Miss Skiffins and Herbert has Clara; Pip has only the bitter knowledge that the oafish Drummle has begun courting his beloved Estella.
Of course, the most important and most ominous development in these chapters, foreshadowed countless times in the earlier sections of the novel, is the reappearance of the convict, now a rugged old man, and the revelation that he, not Miss Havisham, is Pip’s secret benefactor. This revelation deflates Pip’s hopes that he is meant for Estella, and it completely collapses the stark social divisions that have defined him in the novel, first as a poor laborer envious of the rich, then as a gentleman embarrassed of his poor relations. Now Pip learns that his wealth and social standing come from the labor of an uneducated prison inmate, turning his social perceptions inside out. The fulfillment of his hope of being raised to a higher social class turns out to be the work of a man from a class even lower than his own. The sense of duty that compels Pip to help the convict is a mark of his inner goodness, just as it was many years ago in the swamp, but he is nevertheless unable to hide his disgust and disappointment.